Fel (James Galloway)
The Tower of Sorcery
It was going to be a good day.
Tarrin stumbled slightly under the weight of the deer as he tried to step over a fallen log, working to prevent the end of his bow from snagging on the underbrush. The morning sun was piercing the thick canopy of the ancient woods at a low angle, splashing golden yellow light over tree trunks and occasionally hitting the back of a leaf, lighting it up from behind and giving it a golden glow. The air was warm and dry, and the forest was filled with the sounds of life; chirping birds, the cry of a squirrel, the rustle of the brush as a rabbit or chipmunk scurried about. The sounds were slightly alarmed, for Tarrin couldn't carry the deer carcass and manage any decent stealth, but he wasn't so noisy that they went totally silent.
He would make it back in plenty of time. The deer was already slated to be roasted at Summer's Dawn, a festival that the village held every year at the beginning of summer. It was a day for everyone in the village and on the surrounding farms to take a break from the grueling work, to bring something that represented the bounty of the land to a grand feast that would take place on the village green. Most people brought something from the wild, representing the richness of the forest, and it another way, giving thanks for it. When the crops failed, a family could survive with a bow or sling. Right at that moment, wives were skinning something freshly snared or shot, accepting bowls of mulchberries from the children who had picked them, or waiting for the husband to get back with his catch. Most men went after deer, but more often than not they had to settle for rabbit, or maybe even boar.
Tarrin downed a big one. It was so heavy that he almost couldn't carry it. Tarrin was a very good hunter. His father had been a Ranger, one of the specially trained soldiers that learned to fight and survive in the forest, and that training made him the best hunter in Aldreth. Or it would have, if he could hunt. Tarrin had learned from the best hunter in the region, and he was very accomplished himself. There were things that his father, Eron, saw that he barely noticed, and to him, the slightest turned leaf was like an open book. Eron couldn't hunt, but he could still track, and he was not only known as the best tracker in the region, but renowned all the way to Torrian. He had been a mighty soldier in his day, and had risen high in the ranks before accepting his pension and retiring to the farm on Aldreth. He'd matured into a quiet, reserved man with graying hair, gray beard, and a twinkle in his blue eyes.
Tarrin's mother had everything to do with that. To the villagers, Elke Kael was...unusual. She wasn't Sulasian, she was an Ungardt, one of the hardy folk that lived to the far north in the frozen lands. She was tall, taller than every man in the village, and had the pattern Ungardt features. Blond hair, wide hips, buxom chest, pretty face. But Elke Kael was steel under her pale skin. She had a figure that made the village women grumble in envy, but there was nothing but corded muscle inside the loose shirts and breeches she commonly wore. She was a warrior, the daughter of a clan king, and she had every bit of the pride and haughtiness.
The villagers didn't quite know what to make of Elke Kael. She was the wife of Eron Kael, one of the most respected men in the area, but she was nothing like him. She was a hot-tempered, blunt, erratic woman that could use a sword or axe better than any man in the village, even her own husband, and the fact that she was a better fighter than the men left them a bit envious and scornful of her, and left the women confused and not a little bit afraid of her. She had a tongue sharper than a razor, and was infamous for her temper-induced explosions. She was nothing like anything the village had ever seen before, with a personality and attitude that was as misplaced in the Aldreth crowd as her appearance was. The years she'd been in the village had done little to change this view of her. She was known as "the blond witch" when her ears were beyond the words. But Tarrin found her reputation to be a bit misplaced, because at home, Elke was a gentle, compassionate woman. She was quick to criticize, but she was just as quick to complement. Forty years of life had done nothing to her body; she looked like Tarrin's sister instead of his mother. Her blond hair was untouched by gray, and her body was just as hard and taut as it had been when she arrived. The only mar on her were the very faint and small wrinkles that had begun to creep up around her eyes.
But what was unusual to the villagers was what Tarrin accepted as normal. Tarrin had grown up watching his mother and father, and he'd learned that they weren't the usual parents from talking to the village children. When most mothers were baking bread, his mother was practicing with her axe. When most fathers were working in the fields, his father was teaching him how to shoot the bow, and how to hunt, and what to look for when he was tracking a deer. For a seventeen year old, Tarrin was a nasty fighter. He'd grown up with a sword in one hand and a bow in the other. His father was a grizzled pensioner of one of the most elite divisions of the Sulasian army, and his mother was the daughter of a clan king, and as such was trained in the formidable style that made the Ungardt some of the best fighters in the world. Tarrin had spent more time in his life outside than inside, and more time holding a weapon than a farming tool. He'd been trained by his parents in most common weapons, and Elke had taught him the devastating hand-fighting styles that made the Ungardt so dangerous.
He stopped for a moment, wiping sweat off his brow that had slid down out of his blond hair. Tarrin favored his mother in looks. He had the Ungardt height and broad shoulders, and had also inherited blond hair and blue eyes from his mother. His ears were flat against his head and narrow, like his father's, who jokingly commented that they were the proof he was blood related to his son. Tarrin's face was the male version of his mother, with the same high cheekbones and strong jaw, the same straight nose and the same penetrating stare. He was handsome in the male way where his mother was handsome in the female way. He was taller than his mother by at least half a hand, the tallest man in the village, and at only seventeen it was guaranteed he would grow a few more fingers before he was finished. He was even stronger than he looked, thanks to the weapons training through most of his life, and had the iron constitution of a man that swung heavy weapons half the day and pushed a plow the rest of it.
He started moving again, finding the game trail that would quickly get him home. They built their farm on what the villagers called the Frontier, the wild expanses west of the village that led into the thousand mile expanse of unexplored forest of the same name. There was nothing between Tarrin and the SandshieldMountains, a thousand longspans west, but trees and forest creatures, and the occasional river or hill. No human life existed out there, because the Frontier was the stronghold and bastion of the Forest Folk, intelligent beings of various types that preferred to live far away from the humans. There were none this close to the village, but it was the reason that nobody ventured west of the village. Eron fell in love with it as soon as he arrived, Tarrin had been told, and had promptly found a meadow so that he wouldn't have to cut down trees and built the farm that they lived on today. Eron still had the Ranger blood in him, and liked to live in the forest, away from the village and its noise and distractions. The Kael farm was the only human settlement west of Two Step creek, about a longspan towards the village from the farm. The farm itself was about three longspans out from the village, just far enough to make visiting an endeavor but not so far out that it took half the day to get there.
Unusual people, living in an unusual place, so the villagers whispered.
Tarrin didn't really miss it. He liked the wild forest, the same as his father, and he learned early in life that his feared mother made the women shoo their children away from him when he was in the village. Especially the mothers of the girls. But Tarrin was strikingly handsome now that he was grown, and the mothers had a hard time convincing their daughters that the blond child of the wild Elke Kael wasn't worth their time. He'd grown up out among the ancient oaks and maples, birch and blueleaf trees, and when his sister Jenna was old enough, he started taking her. But she didn't like it too well; while Tarrin was his mother's son, Ungardt to the core, Jenna had inherited the gentle, mild ways of her father's Sulasian heritage. She was every bit the lady, even at thirteen. Granted, she was a lady that could put an arrow through a squirrel's eye at two hundred paces, but she was still feminine. Jenna had done some of the Ungardt training, enough to be able to defend herself from an attacker, but she hadn't studied the fighting arts the same way Tarrin had. She was wicked with a short-staff, and was probably the best shot from Aldreth to Torrian with a bow.
Tarrin had lived here all his life, but it wasn't his dream to stay here. His parents knew this, and accepted it. Tarrin wanted to be like his father, to go out and see the world, experience what was out there. He wanted to visit the capital of Sulasia, Suld, one of the grandest cities in the Twelve Kingdoms of the west. He wanted to sail on an Ungradt longship like his mother had, he wanted to visit the island city of Dayisè, the grand capital of Shacè. He wanted to see the Fountain of Swans in Toran, he wanted to see the Dragon statue in Draconia. There was a whole lot of life out there beyond the boundaries of the village, and it was waiting for him.
Today's festival was a part of that dream. Two days ago, two strangers had entered the village. One of them, a petite, dark-haired woman, was a katzh-dashi, one of the Sorcerers of Suld. A wielder of magic, and a person that the entire village avoided. Magic was an accepted part of life, especially in Sulasia, but a practitioner of it was a strange being with awesome power, and that made the common village folk a bit nervous. Tarrin had seen katzh-dashi before. Every five years, they scoured the entire kingdom of Sulasia, looking for people who had the spark, the natural talent, to use the power of Sorcery. When they found them, they were taken back to the Tower of Six Spires in Suld and trained in the ability, so they could control it. If they wanted to, they could remain for extensive training to become katzh-dashi themselves. But if they didn't, they were taught enough to be no danger to others, and then released to do as they would.
It was the man that had arrived with her that interested Tarrin. He was a man of average height, wearing ornate plate armor and a small helmet that was fringed by his curly black hair, and he moved like a wolf. That was a Knight, one of the special warriors that were trained specifically to act as the physical complement to a Sorcerer's magical power. The Knights were attached to the Church of Karas, the patron god of all Sulasia, and served the Church when not needed by the katzh-dashi. The training school for the Knights was on the Tower grounds itself, and it produced some of the best warriors in the world. A Knight gave an Ungardt nightmares; they could even hold their own against the legendary Selani, the Desert Folk, a race of non-humans that dwelled in the Desert of Swirling Sands, far east of Aldreth. A Selani warrior was rumored to be able to take ten armed men with nothing but his hands and feet. A single Knight was usually enough of a deterrent to stop a good sized raider band.
While the Sorceress looked for youngers with the spark of Sorcery, the Knight would be scouting for potential applicants to the KnightsAcademy. Most Knights were nobles, or the sons of men who could afford to bribe their children in. But the Knights always looked for people with natural talent. If Tarrin could talk to him, or impress him, he may be allowed to go with them to Suld and petition for formal admittance. His father had taken that step, and had applied, and took their test. But he failed it. Eron was good, but he didn't have the special spark that was needed for a Knight. He went on to have an illustrious career in the army. Tarrin was fully aware that he barely had half a chance to get in. But he'd been taught to go after his dreams. Especially when they weren't impossible ones.
Tarrin stopped for a moment, looking down. There was a track in the soft loam of moss under a tree. It was large, obviously made by someone wearing a boot. But it was huge; the man who made it had to be at least a head taller than him, and weigh almost twice as much. He saw several more, tracking back towards the open forest. He grunted a bit as the heavy deer shifted on his back, so he decided to ask about it when he got back. The deer was too heavy to go investigating, and he wasn't about to set it down and leave it.
A bit later, Tarrin emerged from the treeline not too far from the house. It was a large affair, made of carefully shaped logs and chinked together, with a stone gray slate roof. The house was huge for only four people, with an excavated basement and an attic, and it had six rooms on the first floor. Tarrin occupied the loft-like second floor, which served as his room. His parents occupied the largest room, in the back, and Jenna's room wasn't small either. The other three rooms served as the living room, kitchen, and a storage room. The cellar had a deeper room that held a magical object--it was a piece of metal that radiated intense cold all the time, one of the rare prizes brought back from Eron's many travels. It served to keep their food frozen and preserved, allowing them to stockpile large amounts of food against the often brutal Sulasian winters that howled down out of the Skydancer Mountains, only three days' travel to the north. They often sold the surplus food in the winter to the needy, but were known to share with those who lacked the ability to pay. Paying the worth of something was the honest thing to do--Aldreth villagers were almost legendary for their practical good sense and honesty--but charity was only right and proper.
There were three other buildings in the huge meadow that served as the Kael farm. The barn was on the far side of the house, not large as barns went, but more than large enough to store most of their farming utensils and hay. They had a shearing shed for the twenty sheep that were kept in a pen beside the barn, the source of the wool that Elke would spin into cloth and sew into clothing. His mother may be a warrior, but she was just as good at all the things that wives were supposed to do, and many that most wives were not supposed to know. She could tan leather, weave cloth and fend it, even dye it. And she was an outstanding seamstress and an even better cook. Elke made functional, rugged clothing that would last for years. And with the right kind of leather, she could make leather shoes and boots. Tarrin never ceased to be amazed at the scope and breadth of his mother's ability. He wondered how she found time to learn it all. The third building was the stillery, which sat just downstream of the small brook that passed right by the house. That was his father's passion and favorite hobby. He would spend all day out in that building, brewing homemade beer and brandy, and occasionally apple wine. He was quite expert at it, and his home brewed ale was always in demand down at the Road's End Inn, the village's only inn. Sometimes merchants bought it from him to sell in Torrian.
Much of their farming went for this hobby. They grew hops and barley in addition to wheat, corn, turnips, tomatos, melons, and their groves of apple and pear trees. The sheep were part of the small motley crew of animals living in the farmyard. The sheep shared space with the chickens and geese, and the three pigs in the wallow on the opposite side of the barn. They had three cows, one for milk, that were pastured on the far side of the barn, inside a small fenced area, and they had two horses that split time between being mounts and pulling a plow. Theirs was a prosperous little farmstead, full of plenty and bright in its love of family. He was truly happy here, but the call of the road was something that he couldn't deny. He'd come back here when he was content to settle, find a wife, and live here with his aging parents. By then, Jenna would be married, and she'd have convinced her husband to live here rather than with his own family. It was an unusual circumstance, but he knew his sister. She wouldn't live anywhere else; she shared Tarrin's passion for this little farm, and she would not let herself live anywhere else. She'd make her husband live here.
Jenna came around the side of the house, her dark hair obviously wet. Her simple brown dress was damp around the collar, and she had it partially unbuttoned at the neck. Jenna was just starting to develop into the attributes of a woman. Twice already their mother had had to let out the bust of her dresses, and she'd thickened around the hips substantially in the last two months alone. Though she had their father's dark hair and features, she was going to have a body like her mother. Tall, buxom, and hippy. Not quite as tall as her mother, but she would be at least a hand taller than any other woman in the village. She would be taller than her father, that much was for certain. Eron Kael was half a head shorter than his wife, and it wasn't because he was short. Eron was one of the taller men in the village. She looked up at him intently.
"It's about time!" she said. "Mother sent me out to get you. We're waiting for you."
"Well, I'm here," he told his younger sister with a grin.
"You got a big one," she said gruffly. The relationship between them was complex. It was cordial, and they truly loved each other, but as siblings do, they tended to fight from time to time. They'd had a rather rousing squabble about whose turn it was to feed the animals earlier. In her present mood, that was the closest thing to a complement he would get.
"Let's get it on the cart and get going," he said without preamble.
"Mother! He's back!" Jenna shouted as she turned around. The cart was out front, with the roan Treader hooked up to it. It was laden with his sword and staff, some of the clothes his mother would sell today, a few kegs and casks of his father's ale and wines, and one of the many bushel of arrows that his father had made during the winter. Eron Kael was even better at fletching than he was at brewing. Twenty years as a Ranger had taught him the art of arrow making unlike anything a standard fletcher could match. Tarrin had watched and learned, and he could make good arrows himself, but they were nothing like his father's. It was the major source of income in the house. The farming, the brewing, these were just supplements or hobbies. Eron Kael's arrows were the major part of the family's income. Men came from as far as Ultern to buy them. He also made bows, but not as often. He stated more than once that he didn't have the patience to make bows much anymore, but one of his bows could be sold for a hundred gold lions to a true archery adherant. It took him a month to make a bow, where he could craft ten arrows a day. Occasionally he got the itch to craft a truly exceptional bow. He would spend up to four months on it, but it was well worth the effort, because those special bows were always incredibly accurate, and most of them had tremendous power. Those he could sell for hundreds of lions.
Tarrin dumped the deer carcass on the cart as his father limped down the porch steps, wearing a simple unbleached wool shirt and leather breeches. He'd injured his leg some twenty years ago, but still managed to carry out his duties as a Ranger by doing it from horseback. He managed it for five years before they pensioned him. Tarrin was born after it happened, so he'd never known his father any other way, but the limp didn't slow him down. He could still fight, was still one of the best shots in the region with a bow, and did more than his share around the farm. The only thing he really couldn't do was run fast. Tarrin mused that he didn't look like he was on the verge of his fiftieth year. He had the graying hair, but he was just as spry and alert as ever, and his hands still had the supple magic in them to craft such excellent bows and arrows. His mother came out behind him, dressed in a ragged blue wool shirt with a hole in one sleeve and leather leggings (which was ever a source of shock and gossip among the women, no matter that they saw her wearing pants for the last twenty years). It wasn't like her to have holes in her clothing. It must have just happened. Then again, by the dark look on her face, she wasn't too happy about something. It could very well be that. The fact that she was carrying her axe was more than enough reason not to ask about it. In fact, it was a good reason not to say anything.
"Nice buck," his father complemented as Tarrin climbed into the back of the cart with Jenna, and he climbed into the driving seat.
"He almost got away," Tarrin admitted.
"Let's get going," Elke Kael said grumpily as she got up into the cart beside her husband and stowed her axe under the seat.
Tarrin knew better than to ask, so he filled the quiet silence with mental images of greeting the Knight, what he would say, how he would convince him that he was worthy of a test in Suld. He also went over the forms and moves of the sword in his head, just the way his father and mother had both taught him. Tarrin much preferred the staff in a fight. It was a long weapon with good reach and good speed, you could use it for multiple tricks and feints, and it only killed when you consciously decided to do so. But Knights didn't use staves too often. The sword or the axe was the common weapon of the Knights, so he had to know how to use them to earn a spot in the Academy. And he did, probably better than anyone in the village except his mother. His father had already admitted that his son was a better swordsman than him.
The hour long cart ride was passed in almost total silence. The silence wasn't unusual for the family, for none of them were particularly gabby to begin with, and time spent in silence was common for them. Tarrin was too busy with his mental preparations at meeting the Knight to even notice any conversation around him. The excitement he'd suppressed to hunt effectively had welled up in him since the finality of the trip to the festivities had taken hold of him. He wondered how often the Knight had to endure boys like him coming up and professing a heart-felt desire to be in the Academy and become a Knight. It was a common boyhood dream across all of Sulasia. Tarrin secretly hoped that he could convince him that he was more than the other boys. He was older, that was true, almost too old to start the training, but he already knew so much. He doubted that, if they knew he'd already had instruction, they would hold his age against him. He had all the physical qualities of a Knight. Strength, size, speed, and endurance. But, unknown to him, he had many of the mental qualities of a Knight as well. He was clever, intelligent, insightful, honest, forthright, and modest.
They came around the familiar bend in the road about an hour later, and the small village of Aldreth slid into view. It was a modest community, the village proper holding about thirty homes and shops, arranged in a loose circular formation around the Village Green, a huge grassy meadow that acted as the hub of a wheel, and was the vital communal area of the villagers and the farmers that surrounded it. Every festival or meeting was held on the Green, since the inn was too small to hold everyone. Festivals were held on the Green, and children made it their playground when it wasn't being officially used. The village was bordered on the far side, the east side, by a wide stream, called Cold Water Creek, and right at the foot of the sturdy bridge over it stood Road's End Inn. Aptly named, for it was the end of the road that led to Torrian. The Green was a bustle of activity as tents and tables were being erected or adjusted, and the smoke of many fires filled the air, as did the smell of roasting meet or simmering stews or open-baked bread. Many merchants from Watch Hill and Torrian, the two towns along the South Road, had arriaved and set up stalls to hawk their wares during the summer festival, and even from their distance, Tarrin could hear them shouting.
They parked the wagon at the edge of the Green, and while his father unhitched and pastured the horse in the inn's stables, Tarrin, Jenna, and their mother picked up the food and things they would need and carried them onto the meadow. Elke spoke to her children tersely, in a voice that warned them both not to do anything that would attract her attention. They found a likely spot near the place where the archery games would take place, then Tarrin was sent back for the table boards as the family's women began setting up. Tarrin met up with his father as he reached the wagon.
"What's wrong with mother?" he asked quickly as he pulled out one of the long, broad planks that would be used as their table.
"She's a bit nervous," he replied.
"Nervous?" Tarrin scoffed. "Why would she be nervous?"
"Because of you," he replied.
"Tarrin, she knows you're going to talk to the Knight," he replied. "Sure, she wants to you be on your own and find something in the world, but no mother likes the idea of letting go of a child." Tarrin hadn't considered that. "And, your mother being your mother, she's taking it out on everyone around her," he added with a grin.
"Let me guess," he said, "you didn't sleep well last night."
"I don't think I slept at all," he replied honestly. "I don't think she did either."
"I never thought she'd be like that," he said. "She's all but tried to throw me out of the house."
"That was her trying to motivate you," he confided. "Now that the end is in sight, she's reversing tactics. After she gets over her tiff, and she sees that knight, expect her become all light and sunshine," he predicted with a wink. "She'll try to honey-talk you into giving up on the idea."
If anything, Tarrin knew that his father knew his mother. He could predict almost the exact words she would use when she talked sometimes. That familiarity was an extension of the deep love he had for his Ungardt princess, a love that had caused both of them to learn and know absolutely everything about the other. His mother could perform the same predictions on his father, but Eron was much better at it than Elke.
"I didn't mean to upset her."
"Tarrin, nothing you could do could change that," he said. "It has to do with you striking out on your own, and that's just a natural thing. It comes eventually."
"How do you feel about it?" he asked.
"I feel alot like your mother," he said. "I don't like the idea of you leaving, but I understand that you were never meant to spend your life on a secluded farm. Parents just don't like to let go of their children, Tarrin. When you have your own children, you'll understand."
Tarrin considered that as he and his father carried the long table planks out to their site. He helped erect the table as Elke and Jenna started a fire, and Tarrin winced a bit as Elke rather brutallyy and efficiently cleaned, skinned, and dressed the deer for roasting. She was taking her aggression out on the poor thing. Tarrin was glad it was already dead. "Tarrin, go fetch that barrel of arrows," Eron commanded.
"Yes, father," he replied, and scurried off to the wagon.
At the wagon, he hefted up the heavy barrel, filled to the brim with the wooden shafts of arrows in a carefully arranged double-stacked system of packing them that allowed maximum space with minimal risk of damage to the arrows or fletching. As he hefted the barrel onto his shoulder, he saw the knight and the Sorceress stepping out of the inn.
The woman was a slim woman, very diminutive and delicate looking, with thick dark hair that fell down her back in tumbled waves. Her face was delicate and fragile-looking, with graceful features that made her quite lovely. Her brown eyes were rather large and penetrating, and Tarrin could feel her gaze sweep over him like a hundred phantom hands. She wore the plainest of dresses, a simple blue dress with no frill or ornament, but the dress was made of silk, and it shimmered and whispered in the morning light as she moved. She was a very regal-seeming woman, and moved with a commanding aire that all but announced to everyone that he was high born.
The knight was just slightly above average height, about half a head shorter than Tarrin, wearing rather ornate plate armor that showed the nicks and scars of use in battle. He was solidly built, with an impressive barrel chest and thick arms, and his curly black hair curled around the edges of his conical steel helmet. It was an open faced helmet, and that face seemed out of place on a man of war. His face was cheeky and broad, with a slightly wide nose and narrow eyes that made him look impish and jovial. Despite that disarming face, he wore a heavy broadsword at his belt, and it hung there as if it was a part of him. He was well trained in fighting, his stance and very demeanor screamed of it.
Tarrin wanted to talk to him right then, but he had the barrel of arrows. With a sigh, he turned his back to them and trotted back towards the picnic area his family had claimed.
After setting everything up, Jenna went to talk to her friends, and Eron drifted off to talk to Glendon Nye, one of the Village Speakers. Tarrin watching his mother for a few moments, moving in an aggressive manner, slamming pots down, yanking things about, and muttering under her breath. He put his hand on her shoulder gently, and she whirled about on him. "What?" she demanded.
"You're being silly," he said with a smile. "Even if I do go away, I'm still your son, and I still love you."
She looked at him for a moment, then laughed in spite of herself. "I don't want you to go," she admitted, putting her arms around him and giving him a gentle hug. "I know you need to, but I don't want to lose my baby."
"I'm not a baby anymore, mother."
"To a mother, her children are always her babies," she replied.
"You won't be losing me," he said. "I'll just be somewhere else."
"It's more than that, Tarrin," she said, letting go. He handed her the carving knife she was reaching for absently. "I guess parents don't like seeing their kids grow up. It makes us feel old."
"Old? You?" he scoffed.
"I feel it from time to time," she admitted. "It just doesn't show on me as much as it does your father." She gave him a sidelong glance. "This place isn't for you, son," she said. "Considering the way the rest of the village considers me a witch, you'd do better finding a wife elsewhere. Even the girls who gawk at you cringe when they see me. They would not be good daughters-in-law."
"Mother, you'll outlive the mountains themselves," he said with a chuckle.
She smiled at him, but said nothing.
While the women were preparing the food, the men readied for the competitions. Tarrin picked up his staff and bow and rushed into the fray. First was the archery competition. It was simple enough contest, where stands of ten archers fired at hay-stuffed targets with cloth targets pinned to them. They were painted with red circles, and the two archers to have the best score went on to the next round. There were three circles on the target. An arrow inside the outermost ring was worth one point, inside the middle ring was worth two points, and inside the third was three points. A red circle was in the center, the bull's-eye, and that was worth four points. Each archer had ten arrows, and the targets were started at one hundred paces. With every round, they were moved back twenty five paces. Tarrin's family more or less dominated this event. Tarrin and Eron Kael were outstanding shots, but this year Jenna was old enough to compete. They'd never seen Jenna shoot before, but both her brother and father knew how deadly she was with a bow.
Jenna wasn't the only woman in the contest. Many of the village women knew how to use a bow, and some of the better shots, mostly young women, had decided to compete. There were nearly fifty people competing, almost half the village's population.
Tarrin, Jenna, and Eron all were drawn into the first round. As Tarrin and Jenna checked their bowstrings, they heard Eron scoffing at Lamon Dannis, the village cooper. "That young girl of yours don't have enough arm to send an arrow a hunnerd' paces," he drawled.
"I'll wager you twenty silver talents that she can put eight arrows into the bull's-eye," Eron said immediately.
"'Ere now, friend," Lamon said in his outlander's drawl, "I think that's fatherly pride talkin', not good sense."
"Then accept the wager," he goaded.
"Done then," he said loudly. "Easy money."
"Yes," Eron agreed. "For me."
There was raucous laughter from several of the men around Lamon as the Kaels marched onto the line. They all counted out ten arrows, then put the rest on the ground well behind them, like the other seven men and women on the line. There was no organized firing. Each archer fired at his or her own pace, but they all had to wait for the go signal from Garyth Longshank, the village mayor. Garyth was a tall man, thin and whip-like with a friendly face and warm expression. He was the village cobbler, and just about everyone except the Kaels wore his leather shoes and boots. He was also a sharp trader, who made quite a bit of money duping the travelling merchants who thought the small village had no trading man among them. Garyth, wearing a simple white wool shirt with his leather apron and wool breeches, stood to the near side of the firing range, holding a large piece of white cloth in his hand. "Are the archers ready?" he called.
There was no reply. That meant that everyone was ready.
"Alright then, commence shooting!" he shouted.
Tarrin exhaled, centering himself. He drew back his powerful longbow in a smooth motion; the bow was one of Eron's best, and it was so powerful that only Tarrin, Eron, Elke, and the village smith could even draw it. He brought the bowstring to his cheek, carefully lining the arrow up with the target, after testing the air with his senses to discern wind speed and direction. He held the bow rock-solid, tuning out the sound of loosed arrows and chatter around him, becoming one with his bow, one with the target, just as he was taught. Then he loosed in a smooth, fluent motion.
He knew it was a bull's-eye the instant it left the bow. He didn't bother to watch it, reaching in for another arrow, pulling it out just as his arrow thudded home in the exact center of the target. His was not the only one; many men and women in Aldreth were not shabby with the bow themselves, since just about everyone in the whole village had at least one. The villagers of Aldreth as a whole were exceptionally proficient with the bow. Of the ten archers at the line, only two failed to hit the bull's-eye on the first shot. And theirs were not far off.
Tarrin blanked out his mind again, drew, carefully aimed, and then fired. Then again. And again. His arrows were tightly grouped right around the bull's-eye as he fired his arrows. Tarrin lost track of where he was, he was so caught up in the machination of nocking, drawing, aiming, and firing the bow. He reached for another arrow, and found the quiver empty. He'd fired all his arrows. He looked down the range, seeing his ten arrows almost perfectly arranged inside the red of the bull's-eye. That was good, even for him. He usually had one or two outside the bull's-eye. He looked to his left, to his sister's target. It looked exactly like his. A look to the right showed his father's target exactly the same. His father looked at him and grinned boyishly.
"They'll have to advance all three of us," he said with a smirk. "We tied. And I just won twenty talents."
Jenna laughed delightedly and lowered her bow. "Let's see the others beat those," she said with family pride.
As surely as the sun rose in the east, Eron was right. Garyth consulted with the official tallyman, then made an announcement. "There is a tie," he called. "Three people put all ten arrows in the bull's-eye. The rule is, all people who tie are given advancement except in the final round, so Eron Kael, Tarin Kael, and Jenna Kael advance."
Smiling, the three made their way back to their table, where Elke handed each of them an earthenware mug of chilled apple-flavored ale from Eron's keg. "Did you see that?" Jenna laughed to her mother.
"You shot very well," Elke smiled to her daughter.
"And Lamon Dannis thought I couldn't get an arrow to the target. Ha!"
Tarrin noticed that all the boys were looking strangely at Jenna. Surprisingly, her shooting ability had attracted their eyes. He couldn't see why not, her dark hair and pretty face would attract any boy's attention. Then again, she was the daughter of Elke Kael. But Jenna didn't have the same problems as Tarrin, since she looked Sulasian to her fingernails. She had lots of friends in the village, and the mothers of the children weren't quite as worried over her. Although Tarrin was a nice, considerate boy, he looked too much and acted too much like Elke Kael to suit them.
"Don't drink too much," Tarrin warned her. "We have to shoot again."
"I won't," she promised.
Because ten people were supposed to go on to the next round, the rules changed slightly for the last group. There were only six of them, so the mayor decided that only one of them would advance, to balance out the advancing group to ten to take the tie into account. After the last group fired, the targets were moved back and the advancing ten were called back up to the line. In this phase of the competition, the goal was to score at least a predetermined amount. Everyone that did stayed in, while those who failed were out. Every time a round was over, the target was moved back twenty five paces. In case nobody scored the quota on a particular round, the person with the highest score was declared the winner. What made it more difficult was that each archer was only to fire three arrows.
"This is a group of good archers," the mayor said in a booming voice, "so we'll make it tough right at the start. The quota is nine points." Everyone was expected to pass the first round, but a few of them grumbled at the high quota set. The reason they grumbled was because the wind had picked up some. Distance firing in a shifting crosswind was tricky. "Archers ready!" the mayor called, and ten bows raised. "Loose!" he shouted.
Tarrin raised his bow slightly, calculating in his mind the trajectory angle needed to give the arrow the right height to hit the bull's-eye. Then he watched the wind carefully, adjusted his aim to let the wind push his arrow into the target, and then loosed. He watched the arrow go high and seemingly off center, then get pushed down and back on course by the wind. It hit just at the edge of the bull's-eye, but it still counted as one. He noted with concern that Jenna nailed the center with her first shot, but Tarrin knew that Jenna had to eliminate everyone else fast. If the target went back too far, her young thirteen-year-old arm wouldn't be able to send an arrow to reach it. Tarrin figured she'd be in for only three rounds before distance began working against her. But Tarrin had other things to do than worry about his sister. He nocked another arrow, aimed, checked, adjusted, and then fired again, hitting more solidly in the bull's-eye that time. Then he did it once more. His last arrow missed the bull's-eye, but was solidly in the innermost ring. That was eleven points, enough to advance. Tarrin saw that Jenna and his father both had three bull's-eyes. Looking down the line, Tarrin saw that everyone looked to be advancing.
Almost. After the tallyman checked the targets and the archers walked to the target to pull their arrows, two people were eliminated, the thatcher and the smith's apprentice. The targets were moved back, and Tarrin glimpsed a slightly worried expression on his sister's face. He thought that she had to know that she was going to run into this problem; Tarrin did well his first time, but didn't win. Because the same thing happened to him. The target was pushed back out of his range. He stepped over to her as she checked the fletching on her arrows, and said "don't worry, the same thing happened to me when I competed the first time. Just do the best you can."
"But I want to win," she huffed.
"So did I," he told her.
The wind died down some as the mayor raised the quota to ten points. The whole line took several minutes to shoot three arrows, as each archer carefully took aim, and there was no time limit. After that round, three more were out. Five stood to watch the target go back. The quota went up to eleven points, and Tarrin guessed that this would be the last round.
It took Tarrin almost a whole minute to aim and fire the first arrow. He saw that it was either right on or close, but the target was too far away and too peppered with holes to make a solid guess. He didn't worry about it, just aiming his next arrow and shooting, then again. He was one of the last archers to finish, so he only had to wait a few seconds until the mayor called for bows down, and the mayor joined the tallyman to check the scores. They checked the five targets, all of which looked close, then walked back to his standing area. "Only one person advances, so we have a winner!" he called. "The scores are: Kanly Mills, eight points. Aaron Noth, nine points. Tarrin Kael, ten points. Jenna Kael, ten points. Joran Wanderer, ten points. And the winner, Eron Kael, with twelve points!"
Eron accepted a few handshakes, and then patted his daughter on the shoulder. "You did very well, my girl," he said with a smile. "You'll do even better next time."
"Second place your first time out is pretty good," Tarrin added. "It's better than I did."
"I still wanted to win," she huffed.
"That's your mother talking," Eron laughed as they went out to collect their arrows.
Tarrin ran to the table, set aside his bow, and picked up his staff. Next was his favorite competition, the staves. Much to his mother's dismay, Tarrin preferred the staff to any other weapon. His own staff was rather special, much like his bow, but he'd made the staff himself. He'd found an Ironwood sapling some three years ago. Ironwood was much as its name described, a rare wood that was so strong that it was like steel. It took Tarrin three days to cut the sapling down, and it ruined five saws. It took him over three months to strip and shape the wood, and he couldn't even count how many knives he ruined in that endeavor. It cost Tarrin every copper bit he had, plus some of his parents' money which he still owed them, but it was worth it. Ironwood was almost unbreakable, important qualities in a good staff. The wood itself was just a tad heavier than oak, and it looked almost exactly like oak, but it floated so powerfully that he could stand on the staff in a still pond. That ironwood stump had regrown, and it was quickly going to return to the size that it was when Tarrin cut it down. That was the way ironwood was. Tarrin had wisely made his staff using his mother's height as his guide, projecting the size he would be full grown by sizing the staff for someone slightly taller than his mother, and besides, he could always cut the staff down to size if it was too large, where he couldn't put wood back if he made it too small. And the gamble had paid off. The staff was about half a head taller than him, as a good staff should be sized for its user, and he hadn't had to cut it down. It fit almost perfectly into his hand, but he remembered how cumbersome it was when he first made it. It hadn't mattered much, for he'd had enough wood for two, and had made another one for himself at that height. Jenna owned that one now, it was almost perfect for her. A bit too tall maybe, but she'd grow into it.
Rushing to the referee's table, he hurriedly put his name into the draw for staff contestants, then he looked at the ring. The staff competition was rather simple. Two contestents stood inside a circular ring that was fifteen paces across. A contestant could win in three ways. He could knock his opponent out of the ring, he could knock the opponent off his feet, or he could knock the opponent's staff out of his hands. Dropping your own staff or stepping out of the ring put yourself out. Contestants were allowed to voluntarily go down to one knee, but not both. It was a full contact competition, but hitting between the legs, in the back, or in the face was automatic disqualification. Shots to any part of the head with hair, or above the forehead for the balding contestants, were perfectly acceptable. Hits with hands or feet were also acceptable, as were hits with any part of the body against an opponent, except for those areas that were off limits. Jen Bluebird had a habit of headbutting his opponents, and that disqualified him last year.
Tarrin stood next to his father, who had his own staff, watching the roughly thirty men willing to compete this year put in their names. "Karn Rocksplitter's competing this year," Eron noticed. Karn was from Daltochan, the mountain kingdom in the CloudDancerMountains to the north, and like all Dals, he was wide and powerfully built. Being a blacksmith made him even more powerful than his Dal heritage. Karn had been the village champion for three straight years, but he'd broken his ribs a week before the festival last year and couldn't compete, and Tarrin had won. Many in the village were looking forward to seeing the young Tarrin Kael up against a grizzled veteran like Karn Rocksplitter.
"Good," Tarrin said. "I didn't feel right not getting my head thumped by him last year." Tarrin had been knocked out by Karn two years earlier, but it had been a good contest. Karn relied on his raw power, and his smithy's endurance allowed him to just wear down opponents. Tarrin was ready for him this year. Karn wasn't offensively gifted, but he could stand in the middle of the ring and defend to the Last Day. Tarrin already had a plan, because he fully expected to cross staves with him.
"First contestant," the mayor called, reaching into a hat with names written on pieces of parchment, "Tarrin Kael! Second contestant," he called, pulling out another strip. He laughed. "Second contenstant, Eron Kael!"
There were some shouts and laughter at that, and father and son gave each other a slight smile. Eron may have a lamed leg, but he was still a formidable opponent with the staff. "Looks like you're not going to repeat this year, son," Eron said mildly.
"I just hope mother brought some cold cloths," Tarrin shot back. "You're going to need them."
They took their places in the ring. If anyone could defend against Tarrin, it was Eron, and Tarrin knew it. It had to do with the daily sparring practices they had. Tarrin didn't fight the staff the same way the villagers did. He'd been trained in the Ungardt way, and the Ungardt fought the staff with a completely different style. The Ungardt had forms for holding the staff in the center and also on one end. Tarrin knew Eron had more trouble dealing with a end-hold style, so that was the way he set himself in the ring, holding his staff almost like a spear. Eron grimaced a bit, and then gave his son a wolfish grin.
"Eron, are you ready?" the mayor called. Eron nodded. "Tarrin, are you ready?" Tarrin nodded. "Alright, just remember that we're here for fun, not to knock out teeth. Ready? Go!"
Tarrin evaded a fast thrust to the belly, spun around and ducked to evade the swipe at his head, then whipped the staff across the back of Eron's knees. He felt the staff connect solidly, but he'd missed the knees and hit only one knee. He didn't have a low enough angle to get both. Eron dipped as his lamed knee unlocked, but he didn't go down. There was some laughter at the youngster's quick coup against his father, but they'd seen Tarrin fight staves before. He was one of the ones favored to win. Tarrin blocked a fast series of swipes from his father, using the end-hold grip like a sword to parry blows, then stepped into a high swing, blocked with the far end, and tried to smash the held end of the staff into Eron's belly. Eron blocked it with the center of his staff, but Tarrin's power scooted Eron's feet across the dirt ring, towards the rope that marked the ring boundary. Eron leaned into his staff, stopping his skid, but Tarrin had leverage enough to lift a foot. He stomped on his father's foot hard, making Eron wince, then hooked his heel behind the foot he'd just stomped and pulled with his foot as he pushed with the staff. Eron was pinioned between them, and tottered back as his foot caught against Tarrin's heel. Eron gave up a hand on his staff and grabbed Tarrin by the belt, threatening to pull both of them down and cause a double-elimination.
But Tarrin wasn't put off. He gave his father a heavy push, then quickly grounded one end of the staff and leaned into it. Eron kiltered backwards, staff going wide, and then he started falling. Tarrin leaned into his staff as Eron's hand on his belt tried to yank him forward, using the staff as a buttress against falling. Eron fell backwards, reached the end of his arm, and then was yanked to the side. He came to rest on his backside, his staff under his leg, holding on to his son's leather belt.
"Winner, Tarrin Kael!" the mayor called, as many of the spectators clapped and shouted and laughed. Tarrin helped his father up, who still had that wolfish grin.
"Sneak," his father accused.
"Cheater," Tarrin bit back, with a smile on his face.
"Thought you'd give that up if I threatened to double us out," Eron admitted with a wink.
"I figured you did," Tarrin grinned back.
Tarrin's next match wasn't so quick. It was against Jen Bluebird, who was deceptively powerful and very fast. Tarrin matched Jen's speed with speed, and the two of them danced around each other as their staves moved in blurred symmetry. Tarrin's moves were more precise, more crisp, than Jen's as he moved from one move to the next, flowing like water around and with his opponent. He blocked a flurry of high-low strikes from the staff, leaned back out of reach of a high swing, then just moved his leg out of the way of a strike at his ankle. Just his leg. Jen hadn't expected him to not move back, and was too close. Tarrin drove the end of his staff between Jen's feet like a spear and then twisted, putting one end behind his left foot and the side in front of his right. Then he lifted a hand off the staff and punched Jen in the stomach. Not hard, just hard enough to knock him backwards, allow the staff to tangle his feet, and topple him.
Tarrin defeated his next opponent almost immediately. It was Darl Millen, the wheelwright. Tarrin bulled into the heavier man, supposedly playing right into his hands, then hooked his arm around his hip. Tarrin stepped into his opponent, twisted so his back was to Darl, and dragged him over his body in the Ungardt hook-throw. Darl landed on his back with a thud in front of Tarrin.
Tarrin's final match was against Karn, and it was the final match. Tarrin stepped up and shook the powerful, bald smith, giving him a warm smile. Karn was one of his few friends in the village, a gruff man who was as much an outsider as he, who had the talent to be much more than a village smith. But this was the life that Karn loved, so this was what he did. "I get ta' thump yer head, boy," Karn said in his gravelly voice.
Tarrin laughed and looked down at the shorter man. "We'll see who thumps who," he returned.
"Contestants ready!" the mayor shouted. "Go!"
Tarrin instantly jumped back to the edge of the ring as Karn settled his feet in his classic "like the mountain stone" stance. Tarrin knew that fighting Karn on his own terms was suicide. He had to make the big man move, make him do the attacking. Because Karn would be perfectly content to stand in that one place and let Tarrin swing until his arms couldn't lift his staff over his head. That was Karn's way. Patient and methodical, the same way he hammered hot steel. Tarrin took up his staff in the end grip and weaved the point near Karn's face, flicking the tip lightly towards Karn's nose. Karn easily blocked the attempts, but Tarrin wouldn't stop. The answering parries became harder and harder, as Karn became annoyed that Tarrin wouldn't do what he was supposed to do and try to take the big man down from the start so that the match didn't go on and go into his favor. Karn's face turned black as Tarrin almost got him, the tip swishing a finger from Karn's nose, and he gave a shout and stepped up to engage the younger, taller opponent.
Tarrin ducked under a swing and blocked the reverse, reset into a center grip, and engaged Karn toe to toe. He kept attacking just enough to keep Karn on the offensive, goading him so that he wouldn't settle back into his classic defensive posture. While they exchanged blows, Tarrin analyzed Karn's attacking technique, looking for any exploits or holes. Not surprisingly, Karn didn't have any worth exploiting.
They battled back and forth for several minutes, Tarrin working to keep from getting bulled out of the ring while Karn defended his knees and ankles, two of Tarrin's favorite targets. Bets and suggestions were being shouted by the spectators around the ring, but Tarrin tuned it out as he saw the hole he needed. Karn set his lead foot down heavy when he tried to thrust. That was what he was looking for. Tarrin put a pace between them, then worked Karn into a position where he would try to poke the end of his staff into Tarrin's belly. Karn bit, stepping in and lunging the point of his staff at Tarrin's ribs. Tarrin spun aside even as the thrust was delivered, the wooden shaft missing his side by a finger. Tarrin dipped and bent going down on one haunch as his hand flew out wide to counter balance the spin. His other leg came straight out, and the momentum of his spin added to his strong kick carried his foot around at high speed. His foot flew around and cracked solidly into Karn's lead ankle. Tarrin felt his whole foot go numb, but he had so much behind it that it pushed Karn's planted foot out from under him. Karn windmilled his arms wildly, losing hold of his staff, then went down in a tumbled heap.
Tarrin rose, still spinning, and came to a stop facing the fallen Karn, staff in hand, tip grounded on the dirt.
"Och, boy, what in the name of the Gods was that?" Karn groaned, pushing up onto his backside.
"That would be a spinning foot sweep," a voice called as Tarrin put his hand out to help Karn up. Tarrin heard it clearly over the cheers and calls from the crowd, and the mayor's cry of the winner's name. Tarrin looked over, and saw the curly-haired knight step into the ring with several other spectators. "That's an Ungardt move," he noted aloud. "The Ungardt, she's your mother, isn't she?"
"Yes, sir," he said demurely, pulling Karn to his feet. "You alright, Karn?"
"Fine, lad, fine," he said with a rueful grin. "I thrust at ye, but ye just disappeared. Then I found my foot trying to fly south."
"I think I broke my toe," Tarrin groaned, settling his foot in his boot. "It was like kicking a rock. Is there any soft part on your body?"
"I don't think so," Karn chuckled. "Mae says my belly's getting a bit soft, but I don't see it."
"A good move, son," the knight continued. "Your mother, did she train you completely?"
"She taught me alot of what she knows," Tarrin replied, trying not to blurt out everything at once. It wouldn't impress him acting like a fool. "I still can't beat her with her own weapons, though."
Karn reached down and picked up his staff as the mayor and Eron clapped Tarrin on the back. "Good match, my boy, good match!" the mayor cried with a wide smile.
The knight was lost in the press, much to Tarrin's disappointment, but he found himself swept up into the good mood and festive atmosphere. He won the prize for staves, a new belt knife crafted by Karn just for the occasion. It was a beautiful piece of work, with a hilt shaped like a falcon, the wings acting as the quillions and the body the hilt. The tail flared out to be a miniature pommel, and there was a hawk's head embossed into the steel of the blade on both sides, where the shape had been carved out of the steel and filled in with silver. Karn outdid himself with that bit of artistic work. The blade was longer than Tarrin's hand, and it was razor sharp on both sides.
Tarrin was sitting at the table, watching Eron and Elke dancing on the Green while Jenna checked the arrows she'd used in the archery contest for damage, when the knight's voice called out. "What brought an Ungardt to such a secluded place?" he asked curiously, walking up to them. Tarrin saw that the Sorceress was with him, looking at the siblings with her penetrating gaze.
"She married father," Jenna piped in simply. "Father wanted to live here, and mother came with him. She says it's warmer than home."
"I would think that it is," the Sorceress said in a mild, calm voice, touched with amusement. "You are brother and sister?"
"Yes ma'am," Tarrin replied respectfully.
"I can see the resemblence," she said.
"Not many people can," Jenna said impishly.
"On the contrary, I cannot see how someone could not see that you share common blood," the woman countered. She reached into the bodice of her blue dress, and withdrew an amulet made of ivory. It was rather unusual, Tarrin noticed, a circle holding a six-pointed star inside it created by two triangles resting over each other in opposite directions. And inside the six-pointed star was a four-pointed star, its points going in the four compass directions, with concavely curved sides. At the center of that inner star was a small diamond. "Do either of you know what this is?" she asked.
"It's an amulet," Jenna replied.
"Not what it is, child, what the symbol means," the woman elaborated.
"No," they both said, almost in unison.
"It is the symbol of my order," she told them, pulling the chain over her head and holding the ivory object in her hand. "We call it the shaeram. It represent the seven spheres of Sorcery. Earth, air, fire, water, the power of the mind, the power of the Goddess, and the seventh sphere, which is the power of confluence."
"Con-flewence?" Jenna repeated. "I've never heard that word."
"It means the power of joining, of unity," she said with a smile. She held out the amulet to them. "Here, take it. Hold it in your hands, and tell me what you feel."
Jenna took the ivory amulet and silver chain, holding it in her hands and looking at it. "Ouch!" she cried, almost dropping it before grabbing it by the chain. She quickly pawned it off to Tarrin.
"What's the matter?" Tarrin asked quickly.
"It's hot!" she said loudly.
"Hot?" Tarrin said. He put his hand near the amulet. "I don't feel any heat," he said, then he put his hand on it. The instant he did so, it felt like he'd grabbed a piece of stock out of Master Karn's forge. "Ahh!" he hissed, yanking his hand back and shaking it violently to cool it. "How do you wear this thing without getting branded?" he asked the Sorceress crossly. Jenna was blowing on her fingers, giving the woman a baleful look.
"Here, let me see," she said calmly. Jenna presented her hands. Her fingers were red and blistered. "By the Goddess!" the woman said under her breath. "Here, you too, Tarrin Kael," she said, in a commanding voice. Tarrin held out his hand.
His skin was severely blistered wherever it touched the ivory.
"It burned you," she breathed in surprise. She put her hand over Tarrin's seared fingers, and Tarrin suppressed the desire to yank it away when he felt something flow into his hand. The throbbing pain eased, and then was gone, washed away by some sort of sensation that was warm and icy at the same time, and not entirely pleasant. She let his hand go, and he gawked at it. His fingers were smooth, pink skin, and showed no signs that anything had happened to them.
"How did you do that?" he asked in shock as she took Jenna's hands in her own. Jenna yelped and tried to pull away, but the woman's hands were like steel, holding them in an iron grip.
"My name is Dolanna Casbane, a katzh-dashi," she said formally. "What I just did is called healing, and with practice, it is something that both of you will be able to do someday."
They both just stared at her.
"The young one is a bit too young," the knight said.
"No matter," she replied. "I am amazed that neither of them have done anything. She needs instruction before she has an accident." She put the ivory amulet back around her neck, tucking the device back under her bodice.
"What are you talking about?" Tarrin asked.
"Both of you, you have tremendous potential," she said, pursing her lips. Then she noticed the slightly confused looks she was getting. "Both of you have the natural talent to be Sorcerers, to be katzh-dashi," she explained. "Tremendous potential. The shaeram burned you. I have never seen that happen before."
Jenna looked at her a bit fearfully. "What does that mean?"
"That means that both of you must come to the Tower of Six Spires, in Suld, and undergo formal training," she replied. "Soon. Now."
"Now?" Jenna said. "I can't just leave! My parents wouldn't let me, and I don't want to go!"
"Jenna," Tarrin soothed, "calm down." Then he looked at the small woman expectantly.
"There is no need to look so surprised," she said gently. "Nor is there reason to be frightened. I will speak to your parents, and let them know what has happened. Then we will all sit down somewhere quiet and discuss what must be done."
Tarrin put his arm around Jenna, who had begun to cry, then he pulled her into his arms and comforted her, his own mind tumbling around a numb sensation. "It was wrong to just blurt it out like that, Dolanna," the knight berated as the pair left.
"I was surprised," she said a bit ruefully, and then their voices were lost in the din. He didn't notice the knight stop and look back at them.
"But I wanted to be a knight," he said numbly, putting his chin on the top of his sister's head.
They had been missing quite a while. Tarrin was still sitting with Jenna at their table, but the sun was creeping very lowly down along the western sky. His parents and the woman had been missing for hours. Tarrin still held Jenna very close, for though she had stopped weeping, she wasn't yet ready to give up on the feeling of comfort and security she was receiving from his embrace. Tarrin wished that someone would do the same for him.
Sorcery. Although his father had many times told tales of the Sorcerers of Suld, Tarrin had never really paid much attention to them. His father had worked with them in the past, and his stories and impression of them was very good. Tarrin had been raised to believe that Sorcerers and Sorcery were good things, and that the katzh-dashi deserved to be treated with honor. But never, even in his wildest fantasies, had he ever considered the possibility that he would be capable of using Sorcery. That was a power for special people, the people in the stories. Although it existed, he never dreamed that it would affect him so personally.
Poor Jenna. All her life, since she'd started to grow into a woman, all she wanted was to find a good man, marry, and settle into a life of blissful domesticity. She had no desire to leave the village, much less travel all the way across Sulasia and go to the Tower in Suld. And she was only thirteen. They had no right to take such a young girl from her parents. And though Tarrin had always wanted to leave, being a Sorcerer was not the life that he'd imagined for himself. He wanted to be a knight. Sorcery was a totally alien concept to him.
The others seemed to sense that something was wrong with the Kaels, but they did not intrude. Tarrin thought somewhere in the back of his mind that they knew that this would happen to some family. Every time a Sorcerer arrived, parents began to worry about ever seeing their children again. Last year, Timon Darby was taken to learn Sorcery in the Tower, and Leni Darby, his mother, had moped around, not speaking a single word, for over three months. Timon had visited last month, and he looked well from the glimpse that Tarrin got of him. What made it seem so bad was that the Sorcerers wanted both of them, that his mother's sense of loss would be that much worse with having to let go of both her grown child and her adolescent child.
Tarrin turned. Elke Kael was standing there with his father and the Sorceress, the knight standing a bit behind them. It was obvious that his mother had been crying. Eron looked somber and serious.
"Mother!" Jenna cried, flying from Tarrin and burying herself into her mother's arms. She started crying again, her shoulders shaking as she sobbed into Elke's wool shirt. Elke stroked her hair and held her close, crooning soft words to her daughter.
"Child, there is nothing to be afraid of," Dolanna said calmly.
Jenna pushed away from her mother, her eyes burning with something that Tarrin guessed was pretty close to hatred. "Get away from me!" she shouted. "I don't want to go! I don't have to!"
"Child," Dolanna said, but Jenna cut her off. Jenna raised both her hands, and Tarrin felt the most unusual sensation, a sensation of drawing in. Except it was Jenna who was drawing whatever it was. He could feel something, it, flow into his sister like a flood.
"Leave me alone!" she screamed. Suddenly, pure fire erupted from Jenna's hands, and it roared at the Sorceress like a wall of blowing dust before a tornado. The fire simply stopped when it reached the woman, coalescing into a fiery ball in front of her. Then it vanished as quickly as it had appeared.
Jenna stared at her hands in shock.
"That is why you must learn, child," Dolanna said firmly. "With your power, you could quite possibly destroy the entire village. But you are right. We cannot make you go."
"Dear, you don't have to go," Elke said softly, putting her hand on her shoulder. "Dolanna agreed to send someone here to teach you. You're too young yet to leave, but they can't just let you go around like this. You could hurt yourself."
"I don't have to leave?" she asked in a small voice.
"No," Elke said with a gentle smile. "When you're older, you will have to go to their tower, but not until you're older."
"Mother!" she said with a sob, crushing into Elke's arms again.
"She will learn much better in a place more comfortable for her," Dolanna said to Elke calmly. "We have not had one as young as she with the kind of power that she possesses. In such a special case, certain exceptions must be made."
"What about me?" Tarrin asked.
"You, my young one, you will be going with us," she told him. "We are leaving tomorrow. And you will not be alone. Two other young ones will be going with us. Tiella Ren, and Walten Longbranch. I believe you may know them."
"Tiella? And Walten?" he said in surprise. Tiella was the herbalist's apprentice, learning the uses of herbs for healing. Walten was the son of the village carpenter, a tall, rather shiftless young man more fond of sleeping than working.
"When we return to Suld, I will send one of my brothers or sisters here, Mistress Kael," the woman continued. "As per our agreement, the instructor will reside in your home, so that he or she can be close to Jenna." She turned and looked at Tarrin. "Do not feel that going to the Tower is the end of all," she told him. "It is not required for you to become katzh-dashi. If you decide that the life of the order is not for you, then we will teach you what you need to do to control your power, and then you may be on your way to pursue your own life. But if you do wish to remain among us, I am certain that someone with your raw power and potential would find a position of respect and importance among us."
Tarrin nodded quietly, thinking back to what Jenna had done, and what he had felt. It had frightened him, but at the same time, it felt....wonderful. Like life flowing into him for the first time. Was that how Sorcery felt when it was used? Tarrin was a curious person, and his appetite had been whetted by that strange sensation. He suddenly found that he wanted to know more about what it was about.
"There is little time to chat," she prompted. "Tarrin, you must go home and pack for the journey, but you may only bring what I tell you. You may bring enough clothing for the journey. You may bring a knife for utility, you may bring any books that you own, and you may bring some of your personal belongings, such as a razor. Anything that you use in your day to day life. You may bring weapons, but not weapons of war. Your staff and your bow are acceptable, but a sword or axe is not."
"Why?" he asked.
"Because novices come to the Tower carrying only what they need, and you will not need weapons," she told him simply. "You will need these items during the journey, so they will not be taken from you when you arrive. But you will be expected to put them away, and not touch them while there. If you were to bring a sword, it would be taken from you and held, and then returned to you when you leave."
"Alright," he said. Despite it not being what he wanted, that short touch on something larger was like a seed growing inside him. Even though he still didn't want to be a katzh-dashi, he found the idea of learning more about the sensation he experienced to look better and better to him.
"You will return to the village after packing," she told him. "You will spend the night in the inn, so we may get an early start on the day."
"Wylan said you can borrow one of the inn's horses," Elke told him. "Go ahead and go get your things. Make sure you get enough clothing for a month-long journey. We'll be staying here tonight too, so bring back a change of clothing for all of us."
"Alright, mother," he said.
"Well scoot!" she said, shooing him away.
"Be back soon," he promised.
He went to the inn first, and after talking to the wiry, nervous-looking Wylen Ren, Tiella's father, he was on a horse trotting back down the large trail that led to the secluded Kael farm. It didn't take very long to get there, and he tied the horse to the porch rail and ran inside. He had a leather pack for when he went hunting, made by his mother, and he used that to pack up enough clothing for one month on the road. He also added in his shaving razor and soap, then got his small cooking pot he used when hunting and filled it with various odds and ends that he felt he may need. He got his pouch that had his sling and a variety of sling stones and metal sling bullets, metal cast-offs of Master Karn's forge that he formed into little balls for a sling. That way he profited off the leftover metal. The knife he'd won in the staff competition went on his belt, and two slender throwing daggers were tucked into his boots, one on each side. Eron had taught him how to throw daggers, and these were balanced for throwing. A third also went on his belt, on the other side. He rolled up his outdoor bedroll, a thick mat filled with down and scraps of wool to form a pallet-like mat, with two heavy wool blankets and a small pillow rolled up inside it. When travelling on the road, it was almost guaranteed that they'd spend some nights outside.
He came down out of the loft and went to the storage room, and got his tent. It was a small tent, made only for one or two people, but it was perfect for camping outside. He then picked up three extra quivers of arrows for his bow, and took it all outside and started lashing what he couldn't wear or carry on the saddle.
He stopped, and looked at the house, and he realized that it would be the last time in a while that he would see it. He went back in and went back up to his room, looking around just once more. He'd lived in this room for the last ten years. His eyes came to rest on a section of wall that was slightly different than the others, where he'd accidentally ran his staff into the wood and made a big hole. It had happened in the winter, and his father had made him sleep in the room with the hole to the cold outside for two days until he could get it patched. He stood on the bed, and reached up into the rafters running along the top of the attic, feeling around. He found the small wooden box, then grabbed it and pulled it down. When he was younger, he always used a chair on the bed to get up there, and hide this box. His secret box, full of all the things that a young boy thought were important. Many things had been into and out of this box, some of them even alive. He opened it after sitting on the bed.
Inside were four things. A large tooth of some animal, the sharp fang nearly as long as Tarrin's hand, a brilliantly glittering piece of quartz crystal he'd once found out along the streambed of Two Step Creek, a twisted nugget of pure gold, also found along the creekbed, and the wing. It was a large gossamer wing, looking like the wing of a dragonfly. But this dragonfly would have been nearly a span long. The wing was a bit longer than Tarrin's hand, thin and delicate looking, but Tarrin knew it was very hard and rather tough. It would also bend before it broke. It was translucent, and when one looked through it, it scillinted and reflected in all the colors of the rainbow. Tarrin had often spent hours gazing at the wing, mesmerized by the colors, and dreaming about what animal or creature had once owned it. Tarrin had found it out in the woods when he was eight years old. It was the first thing that had went into the box, and it was the only thing that had been in the box the entire time he'd kept the box. The wing was the reason he had the box; he wanted to hide something that incredible, put it where nobody could find it. He had owned it longer than anything else, and it was very special to him.
He didn't want to leave the box here. It was as much a representation of his life here as it was a possession. It had been filled with his most secret secrets through the years, and the child in him didn't want anyone else to come along and find it. He remembered Dolanna saying he could bring personal effects. Well, this was the most personal effect he had.
He packed everything back into the box carefully, and then used scraps of wool from his mother's work room to pad the contents. They'd never been jostled around, and he didn't want to run the risk that age would make the wing brittle. After making sure that everything was well protected, he closed the box and set the tiny latch on the front. The box had been a gift to him from his mother, and she'd always wondered what had happened to it. Tarrin had let her believe that he'd lost it. He went back out to the horse, noticing that it was starting to get dark, then packed the box deep into his pack, where it wouldn't have to be removed to get at anything else. Then he locked the front door, got on the horse, and hurried back to the village before it got too dark to ride.
It had been a quiet, emotional night. Tarrin had spent most of the night with his family, just sharing their company this one last time before he left to go to Suld. It wasn't an unhappy time. As the hours went by, the excitement of doing what he had always wanted to do began to take hold of him, and Tarrin's leaving was something that the family was already prepared to face. He was up well past a reasonable hour, listening to Jak Longbranch, Walten's brother, playing his lute and talking. Tarrin's departure had quickly circulated around the village, and everyone in the inn stopped by to wish him good luck at one time or another.
He'd spent some of that time talking to Dolanna, and to Faalken, the knight. He'd asked them about Suld, and they'd spent quite a while describing the city, one of largest and grandest cities in the Twelve Kingdoms. Dolanna described the Tower, with its six smaller towers surrounding the huge central tower, which rose over the city like a tree in a meadow, how the grounds were surrounded by a magical fence, and enclosed enough land to put ten Aldreths inside comfortably. The Tower was home to more than the Sorcerers. The knights had their academy on the grounds as well, and the Tower ran a school for educating those willing to pay for it. Everyone in the school was considered a Novice, although only a handful out of each major class had the spark to be Sorcerers. Tower educated people had quite an edge on others, so many rich nobles and merchants sent their children there to be educated and gain that edge.
Faalken described the city in a bit more detail, like the massive, grand, breathtaking Cathedral to Karas that was in the center of the city, and the Eight Fountains, one at each compass point, beautiful sculptures set in fountains, many of them rigged to spray water. The most famous was the Fountain of Swans. There were many other landmarks in the city, like the BlackTower, a tower that was once home to a wizard, and now was a cursed place. Many came to look at it, enjoying the perverse thrill of catching glimpses of the hideous things that roamed the tower's halls, and occasionally appeared on the balconies. Faalken had told him that they couldn't leave the tower, but that anyone that went into the tower was putting his life in his own hands. Dolanna had called the things trapped in the tower Demons, and she said that it was the hands of the Gods themselves that trapped them inside.
Dawn came early, but Tarrin was already awake to greet it. He was dressed and packed when Dolanna knocked on his door. She gave him a cursory glance when she saw him fully dressed. "Do you often sleep so little?" she asked.
"I don't sleep too much, no," he replied.
"That will work to your advantage at the Tower," she told him with a smile. "Get your pack and come downstairs. We will eat, and then be off."
Tarrin picked up his two packs, a personal one and one for a pack horse, and then went downstairs. His father was already up, sitting at a table with the knight as Wylan Ren set down plates of fried eggs and bread and bacon. "Morning, Tarrin," Wylan said with a smile as he passed. "I'll bring you some breakfast."
"Thanks, Master Wylan," he said, then he set down his packs and sat beside his father.
"Morning, son," he said. "Sleep well?"
"Well enough," he replied. "You?"
"Your mother kept me awake pretty much all night," he said ruefully. "You warmed up to the idea of going much faster than she did." He took a bite of bread. "Now that you've had a night to think about it, what do you think?"
"I, I think I'd like to know more," he said. "I don't know if it's what I want to do with my life, but looking into the possibilities won't hurt me."
"That's a good attitude," the knight, Faalken, told him. "A man set in stone will break before he can bend." He leaned back in his chair some. "You know, maybe I can convince the Tower to let us borrow you for a while," he thought aloud.
"You're Ungardt trained," he said. "There's alot we could learn from our northern neighbors. They fight better than most I've seen. They're not the wild savages people make them out to be."
"Definitely," Tarrin said. "They work very hard to be that good."
Faalken nodded. "I think all the screaming and craziness is more show than anything else. They have a reputation for it, so they have to maintain it." He grinned suddenly.
"A predictable opponent is a defeatable one," Tarrin quoted from his mother's many sayings.
"I see you learned your lessons well," Faalken said shrewdly.
Wylan Ren brought him a platter, and also weak ale for everyone to drink. "Uh, Faalken, I need to ask you about the horse," he said.
"Don't worry about it," he said. "Dolanna bought one of the inn's horses for you."
"Well, that's nice and all, but I don't ride very often," he said. "I'm bound to get saddle sore."
"I'm sure Dolanna will take care of it if you start getting raw," he assured him.
"That's a relief," he said, cutting into the eggs.
Dolanna came down with his mother, and they ate breakfast quietly and quickly. Just about the time that Tarrin finished his breakfast, Tiella Ren staggered down the stairs. Tiella was a pretty girl, fifteen years old and with blond hair and blue eyes. She was very petite, even shorter than Dolanna, but had a very generous figure. She was one of the most sought after girls in the village. Every boy in Aldreth sighed and staggered a bit when Tiella Ren walked past. Tarrin had probably talked to Tiella more than any girl in the village, because she was very smart, and she knew that Tarrin didn't have a real interest in her in the way the other boys did. Although she was very pretty, Tarrin thought of her as a friend, not like that. She was wearing a plain wool travelling dress, one of her older ones so that the brown dye had faded, divided at the skirt for riding. She too had a pack with her.
"Tiella," Tarrin greeted. Tiella was not a morning person. Tarrin had seen her in the morning before.
"Umm," she said blearily, sitting down. Tiella had taken the apprenticeship with the herbalist as much for the fact that he didn't get up until noon as anything else. "There should be a law against getting up this early," she groaned, putting her elbows on the table and putting her head in her hands.
Faalken grinned at Tarrin, then he smacked his palms on the table. Hard. Tiella squeaked and sat bolt upright, then glared at the cheeky knight with murder in her eyes. "I love dawn," he said with an innocent grin. "I love them so much, I'm going to go outside right now and check on the horses."
"You do that," Tiella said in an ominously low voice.
The burly man got up and left without a word.
Dolanna came down with Walten moments later, as Wylan came out, saw the two newcomers, and then went back into the kitchen. He returned with three platters of breakfast, "Wylan, get two more," his father said. "I'm going to go wake up my wife and daughter."
"Certainly, Eron," he said.
Walten was a tall, lanky lad, sixteen years old, with sandy brown hair and a narrow face. His eyes were small and set close together, and his hands were scarred from working as the carpenter's apprentice. He was wearing a simple brown tunic and leather breeches, the knees of the breeches a bit thin from his need to constantly kneel. "Tarrin," he said simply as he sat down. Tarrin and Walten didn't talk very often when Tarrin was in the village, but they got along well enough. They weren't exactly friends, but they didn't actively dislike each other, either.
"Walten," he returned. Walten was notorious for being a bit lazy, but Tarrin thought he understood why. On one rare occasion when they talked, Walten admitted he hated carpentry with a passion that bordered on holy. Tarrin could understand how difficult it would be to motivate yourself into doing something you couldn't stand. He hated carpentry, but he loved to whittle and carve wood. It was that hobby that convinced his parents to apprentice him to the carpenter, but Walten had told Tarrin that there was a big difference between shaving a piece of wood into a shape, and nailing two boards together. Walten would have been a good woodcarver, but not a carpenter. It was the shapes and designs that Walten could design in wood that the kept the carpenter, a wiry, crotchety old man named Dumas Tren, from throwing Walten out on his ear.
Tarrin didn't quite understand the difference, but he kept his opinions to himself. Tarrin crafted arrows in his spare time, trying to master the touch that his father had when making arrows, but what he did wasn't quite the same as what Walten did. Tarrin shaped the ends of arrow shafts to accept the head and the fletching, but Walten could carve remarkably human-like faces and figures into wood. Tarrin could see a difference between the woodworking he did and the work that a carpenter did, but not the difference between what Walten did and the nailing part.
His mother and sister came down moments later, with his father. Elke immediately sat beside him and brushed his hair away from his ear impulsively. Jenna sat across from him, staring at the plate that Wylan set in front of her woodenly.
"We must be off with the dawn," Dolanna said as she sat down. "Eat quickly, young ones. We do not have much time. Tarrin, take the packs and go help Faalken pack the pack horses."
"Yes ma'am," Tarrin said as Elke glared darkly at the Sorceress.
Tarrin shouldered six packs, grunting under the weight, and carried them out to the large stables to the side of the inn. Faalken was there, saddling a small white palfrey, and a large roan stallion pawed the ground behind him. It was a huge horse, and Tarrin didn't doubt that it was war-trained. "Dolanna send you out?" Faalken asked.
He nodded. "Which is the pack horse?" he asked. "I'll start loading it."
"Those two down there," he pointed to the far stalls. "Those packs in the corner go on them too. Put all the food and the tents on the gelding, and use the mare for the personal gear. I have to reshoe Dolanna's horse, and that takes a bit of time."
"Alright," Tarrin said, and he went to work. He pulled out one horse at at time, then saddled it with the pack saddle. After that, he put on the bridle, then began tying packs and tents to the fittings and loops on the pack saddle. After he'd loaded the gelding, he tied it to a post at the feeding trough and went for the mare and repeated the procedure. Tarrin worked with a quiet efficiency that got the job done quickly, and he finished in time to help Faalken saddle the last two riding horses and picket them at the feeding trough.
"Where did you learn how to handle horses?" Faalken asked as they left the stable. "That was professional work."
"My father was in the army," he replied. "He taught me how to take care of horses a long time ago."
"I've heard of your father," he said.
"Yes, his arrows fetch a high price in Suld."
"His arrows go to Suld?" Tarrin asked in a bit of surprise. "A merchant from Torrian comes here and buys them from time to time, but we always thought he sold them in Torrian."
"I guess he sends them on to Suld. Some of them, anyway," he said as they returned to the inn. "Can you make arrows like that?"
Tarrin laughed. "I can make decent arrows, but nothing like my father's," he admitted. "Father has a magic touch when it comes to making them. It's something I could never quite manage to duplicate."
"Don't sell yourself short, son," Eron said. "More than half of the arrows I sell are yours."
Tarrin stared at his father.
"Seriously," he grinned. "You just think my arrows are better. The truth is, you can't tell one of yours from one of mine."
Elke laughed at Tarrin's baffled expression. "I feel, cheated," Tarrin said.
They both burst out laughing at that.
"Tarrin, what do you think happens to all those arrows you make?" Eron asked.
"I thought we used them around the house," he said.
"Son, if I did that, we'd have arrows coming out the chimney. You make more than double what I do. But now that you're going to school, I'm going to have to cut down the orders I accept," he noted to himself. "My hands aren't as fast as they used to be."
"Speaking of school, it is time for us to go," Dolanna said, standing up. "Young ones, pick up your packs and go outside. We will choose mounts for you."
Elke stood and embraced her son fiercely. "You mind your elders now, and do well in your training," she said in a controlled voice. "And remember, your room is always there for you when you come home."
"I'll be back as soon as I can," Tarrin promised.
Tarrin embraced his father warmly. "Do us proud, boy," he said.
"I will," he replied.
Jenna crushed him with a fierce hug. "You write me and tell me what it's like there," she said in a breaking voice. "Maybe we'll be there together when I get there."
"I hope so, shortness," he said. "I wouldn't mind having my little sister around. It wouldn't feel like I was alone then."
His family stood by the table. It was obvious that they weren't going to see him off outside, and that was well enough for him. He wouldn't be tempted to turn the horse around and ride back if he knew they were there watching him leave. Tiella was saying her farewells to her mother and father and three siblings off to one side, and Walten was being admonished by his mother on the far side of the room about his manners and being a good boy. Tarrin hadn't seen his mother come in, but he'd been out in the stables.
Tarrin shouldered his pack and, waving to his parents and sister, he walked out the front door.
Outside, Faalken had the horses lined up and ready. Tarrin selected the largest of them, a gray mare that looked to have a steady disposition, and tied his pack to the saddle quietly. "They're staying inside?" Faalken asked. Tarrin nodded, and Faalken nodded himself. "I can understand that," he said. "I chickened out my first attempt to leave home. I turned around and rode back."
"I was thinking about it," Tarrin admitted.
"Setting out on your own for the first time is both exciting and scary," Faalken said, mirroring what Tarrin was feeling inside. "You're excited about the idea, but part of you doesn't want to abandon what it's come to know and accept as life."
"You're a very wise man," Tarrin said with a smile.
"I've seen Dolanna play this out many times," Faalken admitted. "Be glad you got her. Many Katzh-dashi aren't quite so gentle or considerate as she is."
"Is this all she does?" Tarrin asked.
"No, they take turns," he replied as the others filed out of the inn. Tarrin noted that Tiella was looking back alot, but Walten marched right up to a horse and started tying his pack on, humming a tune and with a big smile on his face. Walten was certainly looking forward to getting away from the carpenter. Tiella tied on her own pack, adjusting the cloak her mother had given her a bit, and climbed up into the saddle. Tarrin had his own cloak rolled up behind the saddle, a very tightly woven one that was virtually waterproof. The air was a bit cool on this cloudless dawn, but not so cold that he needed a cloak. And it was promising to be a warm day, like most days were this time of the early summer.
Tarrin mounted the gray mare quietly, checking his staff and bow, the bow set in the saddleskirt and his staff tucked into the skirt on the opposite side. He had everything, hadn't forgotten anything, and he was ready to go.
"How long is it going to take us to get there?" Tiella asked curiously.
"It's four days to Torrian," Faalken replied. "From there, we'll go to Marta's Ford, which takes six days, and then get on a riverboat and take it to Ultern. That takes about nine days. From Ultern to Jerinhold, and then to Suld, takes five days. Twenty-four days, barring bad weather."
Dolanna gracefully mounted as Faalken climbed up onto his roan. "Alright, young ones," Dolanna said in her calm voice. "Let us be off. Tarrin, you lead the pack horses for now."
Turning their horses, Tarrin took the reins of the pack animals from one of the stable hands that had come out to help. Then they started down the Torrian road, beginning their month-long journey to Suld, and ultimately to the Tower of Sorcery.